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Symbolism in Psychology: a narrative

Symbols have been central to daily living for millennia, right from cave paintings that existed thousands of years ago to the emoticons that we use on a daily basis when communicating over text. In simple terms, a symbol can be anything that represents or stands for something else; this could be an object, an action, a phrase, something abstract- anything that is meant to indicate and signify another given object, relationship, process or idea. For example, we use phrases like ‘my heart dropped when…’  to indicate that we were shocked, as part of speech with people with shared experiences and cultures. Other symbols such as religious symbols or a heart emoticon tend to speak for themselves.

Symbolism refers to the use of objects, words and other forms to represent an abstract idea. For example, the dove being used to signify peace. Symbolism is imbibed in most disciplines like mathematics, art, and of course, psychology too. Below is a narrative on the use of symbolism in psychology and therapy, as examined by the renowned Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

  • Freud and symbolism

Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, thought the mind to be like an iceberg, where the tip- which we can see- was like our conscious mind, whose working we are aware of. However, lurking in the deep waters were also the preconscious, which we are partly aware of and the unconscious, which we are completely unaware of. Freud’s use of symbols can be seen in his methods of dream analysis, where in he stated that dreams were symbolic of our underlying wishes.

According to Freud, our dreams contained two forms of ‘content.’ Manifest content refers to the mind rehearsing the day’s events, and latent content are the symbolic parts of our dreams which contains hidden wishes/ desires. For example, a dream about a giraffe trying it’s best to get the top leaf off a tree could be interpreted as a person wanting to be ambitious or reach big places in life.

Another way in which Freud employed symbolism was by the use of free association, a therapeutic technique used by psychoanalysts as way of revealing unconscious thoughts. They do so by giving a word to the client, and the client is expected to say the first word that comes to mind after hearing the initial word. For example, the therapist might give the word ‘witch’ to the client, where the response to be a normal one like ‘broomstick,’ or an unusual one like ’mother.’ With this, the therapist can steer the therapeutic conversation towards the client’s role with his/her mother.

  • Carl Jung and Symbolism

Carl Jung, who was a Swiss psychotherapist and was known to Sigmund Freud, made use of symbolism in a different manner than Freud. He gave the concept of archetypes which are representative of images, concepts and universal patterns that are a part of a ‘collective unconscious.’  Collective unconscious is the part of one’s unconscious that Jung believed is shared with their ancestors, and includes images and patterns from evolution. In other words, he believed that we inherit archetypes the same way that we inherit instinctive behaviors. Archetypes symbolize basic human values, personality and motivations.

Unlike Freud, Carl Jung saw dreams to be symbolic of personal or spiritual messages instead of underlying desires. Archetypes, being innate and unconscious, arise in art, myths and our dreams. Jung, himself, noted having dreams in which he conversed with an old lady who gave him much wisdom; the old lady being symbolic of wisdom.

Jung’s archetypes have a strong basis in motifs and images that you find in myths, stories and culture. And these archetypes guide us to interpret and make meaning from stimuli. An example could like in Jung’s dream- an old person being a source of wisdom and knowledge. Another could be how we think of all mothers being a source of comfort, which is almost automatic given perhaps our past experiences, or the fact that most stories, cultures have mothers as nurturing characters.

Modern therapy makes use of symbolism as well. Popular therapies like art therapy and sand therapy are highly powerful example as in the therapies the client actively engages in in symbols rather than just talking about it. For example, sand therapy moves beyond a usual couch-chair therapy setting, and involves water, sand and miniature objects or characters which is used by clients to symbolize their unconscious as a way to deal with past trauma. Art therapy is similar, where a client’s own unique creative expression as drawn on paper can symbolize their unconscious emotions and aspects of personality.

What do you think?

514 Points

Written by Simone Morarka

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Riya Rajkotiya

Very informative article

Riya Rajkotiya

Amazingly Written

Disha Dhage

Very informative article

Nidhi Dahiya

Very well written and informative. Keep writing

Jigyasa vashistha

this is great content .. keep posting! 🙂

Leanne Rebelo

good read

Disha Dhage

Informative article

Shraddha S. Kambli

Very informative and an amazing article. Keep it up.

Divya Chopade

I had no idea about symbolism in Psychology and it’s application through various therapies .
Great article , very well formatted

Leanne Rebelo

Well explained. Kindly use distinguishing markers such as the bold feature.

Shramana Singha Roy

very informative